Staying Fueled Up On Long Hikes

Staying fueled up for a hike requires much more than just taking enough snacks. Rather, it’s something that starts before you even leave your house and doesn’t end until you’re back safe, completely refueled from all that exercise.

Eating before you’re hungry and drinking before you’re thirsty are important parts of keeping your energy up while you’re climbing hard, but that can mean several different things. While there’s no 100-percent “right” way, a few key principles will keep you feeling strong, even on your longest days.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Before the Hike

The first key to fueling your quest begins before you leave. If you’re like most people and have a long drive to the trailhead, use that time to get a jump on the day’s calories and hydration. If you have an unusually long day ahead, you might want to start even before you get into the car with something simple, like oatmeal, cereal, or a bagel.

Depending on how far you have to travel, your arrival at the trailhead might be closer to lunch than breakfast. Whether it’s a breakfast sandwich from the local coffee shop, a pastry (or two), the classic peanut butter and jelly, or even leftover pizza, get something in your stomach, and give it a chance to digest before pulling into the trailhead parking lot. Remember that it’s significantly lighter and easier to leave the trailhead with a full stomach and a bottle of water in your belly, instead of carrying them in your pack.

It’s also worth noting that if you have to drink coffee in the morning, caffeine—in addition to being a performance enhancer—is a diuretic. Although coffee is perfect for getting to the trailhead, it also leaves you slightly dehydrated, so plan accordingly.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

During the Hike

What to Eat

While you hike, a good rule of thumb is to consume between 100 and 150 calories per hour. For fast-paced activities, energy bars and gels are a great way to get the calories you need while on the go. When a fast pace intersects with a long distance, however, something simple, like peanut butter and jelly, honey, or Nutella sandwiches, is a great way to celebrate a summit (or break) and provides an excellent “real food” alternative to supplement bars, gels, and chews.

For more moderate-paced outings, “real” food is the way to go. While the more traditional among us will reach for either store-bought or homemade GORP, cookies, Goldfish, and tortilla chips are all hiking favorites as well. Also, sandwiches, leftover pizza, and quesadillas all pack easily and will make you the envy of your fellow hikers. The thing to remember here is that personal preferences vary, and you should bring food that you will actually want to eat—not have to force down.

Lastly, it’s a good idea to pack some extra food in case of an emergency. Stash a couple of highly caffeinated gels in your pack, just in case somebody bonks. There’s one in every group, and these always seem to work to get them up and moving again.

What to Drink

When it comes to staying hydrated on hikes that just take a few hours, one 32-ounce bottle will suffice. For hikes longer than 10 miles, trail runs, and traverses, two 32-ounce bottles or a two-liter hydration bladder does the trick. If it’s really hot out or the distance is huge, you can always add a bike bottle. Using a GU or Nuun hydration tab in your bottles not only adds a little taste but also helps replace electrolytes lost primarily through sweat. For longer outings, it can be nice to carry an extra hydration tab if you’ll be refilling at a stream or hut.

For the “camels” among us (and the coffee drinkers who arrive a little dehydrated), moving from a traditional 32-ounce bottle to a Nalgene Silo is an easy way to pack a bit more liquid without a significant weight penalty. Another thing to consider is the use of bottles versus a hydration bladder. Although a hydration bladder is incredibly convenient, it’s easier to keep tabs on how much you’re drinking during the day using bottles.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

After the Hike

No matter if you brought a full-course meal or subsisted off gels, there is something special about eating when you come back from the mountains. It also helps your recovery to have a meal 30 to 45 minutes after you finish hiking. Moreover, after a long day along the trails, you’re usually ready for something more substantial than the typical hiking fare.

The key here is to start replacing all of the calories you burned over the course of the day. A simple way to ensure you’re getting enough is to pack a post-hike meal to have at the campsite or on the car ride home. Did you plan a last-minute trip or didn’t think that far ahead? No worries—just head out to eat. But, beware: It’s amazing how much you can spend on the “value” menu after a long day in the mountains.